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Sr. Connie: Reconciler with Christ
La Salette sister leads poor, prisoners to life with God
When she arrived in the Arlington Diocese in 2001, Sister Connie Parcasio, the then-newly appointed director of prison ministry, was sure, right then and there, that God had gotten it wrong. The petite Filipino La Salette sister had no experience ministering to prisoners; her degree in social work had been put to use working with the poor in her home country.
But Sister Connie fought past the “fish out of water” feeling, fought past her fear and found that the prisoners to whom she ministers are just like her — deserving of God’s love — and that her childhood and work in the Philippines enabled her to relate to them in a way she had never imagined.
“I see myself in them,” Sister Connie said in a recent interview. “I see them as children of God. Most of the people I came in contact with, they are praying people, and they are, like me, looking for peace and happiness.”
Growing up without money enabled Sister Connie to relate to the poor, she said — though being in jail is “a different kind of poverty” than what is found on the Pacific islands where she was raised.
In a way, the future La Salette sister received her calling on the day of her birth, Sept. 19, the same day that marks the apparition of Our Lady of La Salette in France. Fascinated by her mother’s devotion to the rosary — though she would sometimes hide to avoid praying when she was small, she admitted with a laugh — Sister Connie knew that if she discerned a religious vocation, it would be to a Marian congregation. The “Beautiful Lady” of La Salette and her call to reconciling the people of God to Christ — introduced to Sister Connie at school — tugged at her heart.
A personal struggle
Before Sister Connie could respond to this pull, she had a personal journey to fulfill. When she was in high school, she vowed to reconcile her family, which had been torn apart when her grandfather left her grandmother and their four children when her father was a child.
“I could see the pain in his face and the pain in my grandmother’s face,” Sister Connie said. She was determined to track down her grandfather, and, years later, she did — in the southernmost tip of the Philippines where he was living with another family.
While on the seven-day boat journey to see him, Sister Connie’s father got sick. When they arrived at a hospital on land, he was on his deathbed. Her grandfather came to his side and asked for forgiveness moments before her father, after acknowledging his estranged parent, slipped into a coma and passed away. Her grandfather returned home with Sister Connie to be reunited with his family.
“I think I was born to help reconcile my family,” she said. “(God) prepared me for this.”
Though her family was now reunited, her father’s death placed the roadblock of familial responsibility on her path to the convent.
“With his passing my life was suddenly put at a standstill,” she said. Her obligation was to serve as a “sister” in the traditional sense to her five younger brothers and sisters.
When she was 25, however, she could resist her call no longer. She realized that God could help her family more than she could, and she took a leap of faith into communion with the Sisters of La Salette.
“I don’t know where I got the courage,” Sister Connie said. “He was calling me for service. He was calling me to do something for people, to do more than what I was doing for myself.”
Her vocation fulfilled
Sister Connie spent the next several years living out the message of Our Lady of La Salette: to make her message of reconciliation with Christ known to “‘all my people,’” she said. She took that literally, spending two separate periods of time in Grenoble, France; ministering to the poor in the Philippines, where she started up a branch of her congregation; and working in the United States, specifically at Holy Apostle Seminary in Cromwell, Conn.
She worked as a parish secretary, a religious education teacher and a high school teacher. She ran a farm, served as an interpreter and counseled abused women.
“When you are a sister, especially when you are starting a congregation, you do anything under the sun,” she said. “I just do what I need to do.”
Sister Connie even worked in a mission in the Philippines doing community organizing.
“I like to be with the poor,” she said. “When you are with poor people, you become humble. You don’t need anything. It sets my heart free.”
In the last eight years, Sister Connie has grown into her position ministering to prisoners in Loudoun County. She coordinates volunteers, does office work and, of course, visits inmates.
“Most of these people have experiences that are very sad,” she said. “They have been thrown into circumstances beyond their capacity to solve or comprehend. Many of them have never really known love.”
“(Sister Connie) has worked hard to bring attention to the needs of that particular aspect of our community of people,” said Anne Murphy, a former Catholic Charities employee who worked closely with Sister Connie. “She’s done that in her own very quiet, but very gracious kind of way. She cares deeply for the men and the women who are incarcerated.”
In March 2004, Sister Connie accompanied a man during his final hours on death row, whispering the words, “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit,” into his ear moments before he received the lethal injection.
She called this a humbling experience, one that “put my faith on the ground.
“It made me understand more how important life really is,” she said.
Sister Connie no longer feels the apprehension that she once did when she thought of ministering to inmates.
“I’m not afraid anymore,” she said. “Even before I see them, God is already there.”
Her top priority is to reconcile the prisoners to God’s love, the way Our Lady of La Salette instructed and the way God illustrated through her own life experiences.
“They need compassion, they need people to show them God’s love,” she said. “They need people to care for them.”
Though she’s settled for now, Sister Connie’s vocation is an ever-changing discernment.
“It’s always an ongoing project of growth,” she said. “The way I look at it, I have done very little, but I enjoy what I have done. I do my best.”